Where do ideas come from? — Honoring our elders and leaders

Those of us who seek to break the cycle of inequity, the oppressive tracking of US schools, find themselves immersed and sometimes entangled in the language and scholarship of our time — post modern, critical, post-colonial, neo-Marxist. Many of us who have entered universities from the front lines of struggles in our communities, from the life and death work of survival and change, are surprised and even chilled by the cool, distant, and opaque language we encounter in the academy.

Activists who recently were battling for and alongside their students find themselves trying to understand “trace of the trace” and “phrase regimens” which denote personal realities. As we enter a period of acute crisis of empire, it is essential to rethink some of the intellectual templates we have inherited — to understand where they came from and to begin to write new narratives for a new period.

Ernest Morrell (2008) has rightly called out the exclusion of scholars of color, the othered scholars, in current anthologies and journals on critical theory. He reminds us of the foundational work of C.L.R. James (who pioneered anti-colonial analysis with his account of the Haitian revolution) and Frantz Fanon (on the psychology of violence and anticolonialism) as well as Carter G. Woodson (who described the internalizing of structures of oppression through educational discourse). He calls attention to poets and artists such as Pablo Neruda, Aimé Césaire, and Zora Neale Hurston as well as hip hop philosophers. We should not sit back passively in the face of Morell’s excellent exposé of the state of critical theory. It is important to go back to the sources, to understand what is actually critical in critical theory.

The old-guard European Marxists, those wedded to a domestic economic analysis, those who regarded the “advanced capitalist” working class as the natural vanguard of revolution, generally dominated radical theory. This formulation supposed that workers in colonial countries, and Black and Brown workers inside the US, were of secondary importance and needed to follow the lead of the more evolved white working class. Their mechanical analysis was essentially what we should call economist, that is to say it is a narrow understanding of the social and cultural reality of political economy. In the 1960’s, during the revolutionary national liberation struggles and crisis of capitalism, this dominance was teetering.

The powerful adjustments/challenges to traditional western Marxism came primarily from the Third World as millions of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were fighting to take back their resources and histories. The leading activists who articulated the critique of Eurocentric, economist Marxism were usually tied down with the struggle — but at some times they paused to write their new insights. Some of these activists were more aligned with Marxist traditions, some less.

These Third World liberation struggles found themselves critiquing, twisting, re-casting the tools of materialist analysis — not to retreat from the struggle for liberation but to make theory correspond to the transformative conditions in the real world. Inspired by Marxism, they made crucial contributions and analysis, bits of which were appropriated by European theorists. Equally important is the recognition of how willfully blind — or even dishonest — these Europeans were as to the origin of their ideas. It is common to hear people trace the line of theory from one European to another, Leotard back to Foucault back to the Frankfurt School back to Gramsci back to Marx — all a discussion within Europe. They are blind to the place where new conditions and new battles demanded new analysis, new ideas. New ideas don’t just come from solitary pondering in university libraries. They come from social practice and struggle. And the social practice and struggle of the 1960’s was led from the Third World.

After the 70’s it was the Europeans, and to a lesser extent Americans, who threaded together some of these insights and critiques to construct what is known as post-structuralism, post-modernism, and critical theory. The revolutionary movements, while winning important local victories, were ultimately defeated, unable to meet the overall goal of dismantling imperialism and colonialism, of redistributing power and resources in a more equitable way globally. Yet the insights of the post-structuralist, post-modernist reexamination of culture and class politics, those that were compelling and persuasive, were not their own. They were borrowed, if we may use such a generous term, from the Third World. This is the same kind of borrowing that Elvis Presley famously committed against Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

Still in academia one finds graduate students in thrall to the French political philosophers. I propose, starting with Ernest Morrell’s outline, to add sources directly from the struggle of the 1960’s, people who found traditional, Eurocentric Marxism inadequate to explain their circumstances. Here are some examples — which just begin to scratch the surface — from the front lines of liberation struggles, not from the halls of academia:

Roberto Retamar is a Cuban intellectual and activist. He was exiled to New York as a fierce opponent of the Batista regime and returned after the 1959 revolution. He was a friend of Edward Said and Said credits their friendship for some of the key impetus to his towering book, Orientalism. Retamar became founder and editor of Tricontinental Magazine, published in Havana. Tricontinental was a leading intellectual organ of internationalism in the 1960’s and 70’s — the voice of revolutionaries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. His book Caliban and other essays is a key text exploring the ways that Western culture frames colonial subjects, in this case Native Americans and diasporic Africans, as the other. It was the Third World revolutionaries who led in the critique of literary texts as a way of accessing and challenging imperialist world views.

In his essay, “Caliban: Notes toward a discussion of culture in Our America” (which was first published in Casa de Las Américas in 1961 but then anchored his book), he exposes they way leftist intellectuals from the colonial countries are patronizing of and blind to the colonial reality.

A European journalist, and moreover a leftist, asked me a few days ago, “Does a Latin American culture exist?” We were discussing, naturally enough, the recent polemic regarding Cuba that ended by confronting, on the one hand, certain bourgeois European intellectuals with a visible colonialist nostalgia; and on the other hand, that body of Latin American writers and artists who reject open or veiled forms of cultural and political colonialism. The question seemed to me to reveal one of the roots of the polemic and hence could also be expressed another way: “Do you exist?” For to question our culture is to question our very existence, our human reality itself, and thus be willing to take a stand in favor of our irremediable colonial condition, since it suggests that we would be but a distorted echo of what occurs elsewhere. This elsewhere is of course the metropolis, the colonizing centers, whose “right wings” have exploited us and whose supposed “left wings” have pretended and continue to pretend to guide us with pious solicitude — in both cases with the assistance of local intermediaries of varying persuasions.

Retamar unfolds a brilliant exposition of culture and power, as well as language and hegemonic ideology, with particular attention to José Martí’s anticolonial activism, Fidel Castro’s declarations of anti-colonial independence and the reflections of the European subconscious in Shakespeare and other key texts.

Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean activist raised in both the US and Chile, picked up on Retamar’s development of liberatory cultural critique. Some of his work, published in Chile during the Allende years, dealt not with Shakespeare but with popular culture. His How to read Donald Duck, written with Armand Mattelart, is a powerful Third World cultural critique of the hegemonic framing of the right of control of the subject body. He examines the ways imperialist culture frames the colonial subject as childlike, requiring discipline and domination. The Disney stories also justify why entrepreneurs from imperialist centers deserve the wealth they steal from the colonies because they have recognized value in indigenous resources that the locals could not appreciate.

According to Disney, underdeveloped peoples are like children, to be treated as such, and if they don’t accept this definition of themselves, they should have their pants taken down and be given a good spanking. That’ll teach them! When something is said about the child/noble savage, it is really the Third World one is thinking about. The hegemony which we have detected between the child-adults who arrive with their civilization and technology, and the child-noble savages who accept this alien authority and surrender their riches, stands revealed as an exact replica of the relations between metropolis and satellite, between empire and colony, between master and slave. Disney colonizes reality and its problems with the analgesic of the child’s imagination . . . Under the suggestive title “Better Guile than Force,” Donald departs for a Pacific atoll in order to try to survive for a month and returns loaded with dollars, like a modern business tycoon. The entrepreneur can do better than the missionary or the army. (p. 48) . .. .

All relationships in the Disney world are compulsively consumerist, commodities in the marketplace of objects and ideas. (p. 90)

Dorfman powerfully explores all the elements of the critique of everyday life and culture — exposing not only the reproductive effect on the children in the colonizing country but the internalizing of colonial mentality in the colonies.

Amilcar Cabral was the leader of the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde — or the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) in Guinea Bissau, Africa. He led the guerrilla struggle of the PAIGC from 1963 until his assassination in 1973 in Conakry, Guinea. His groundbreaking essay, delivered in January of 1966 at the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana, was entitled “The weapon of theory.” His contribution was to break from the economist, legalistic Marxism which dominated the communist parties and which clung to the proposition that the proletariat in the colonial countries was the most “advanced” and therefore ultimately the vanguard of the world revolution. Cabral reframed class analysis to correspond to the contingent nature of class alignments in the struggle. True to actual Marxist method, he infused his essay with a concrete analysis of concrete conditions, freed from the dogma of traditional western Marxism.

The very title of his piece, “The weapon of theory,” reminds us that activists are not victims of theoretical straightjackets but must develop strong theoretical insights, must forge new theory, to describe our situation. His important line of reasoning takes him back to an understanding of the Marxist principle of understanding the global mode of production and not just a narrow analysis of capitalist production in the advanced capitalist countries. In this way, he puts the reality of Third World struggle in the middle of the equation, as key to any strategy for socializing the wealth of society. He reminds us that the struggle of African neocolonial peoples is one to rescue and acknowledge their own history, a history that has been ignored and discounted by the traditional Marxists.

[We must] pose the following question: does history begin only with the development of the phenomenon of ‘class’, and consequently of class struggle? To reply in the affirmative would be to place outside history the whole period of life of human groups from the discovery of hunting, and later of nomadic and sedentary agriculture, to the organization of herds and the private appropriation of land. It would also be to consider — and this we refuse to accept — that various human groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were living without history, or outside history, at the time when they were subjected to the yoke of imperialism. It would be to consider that the peoples of our countries, such as the Balantes of Guinea, the Coaniamas of Angola and the Macondes of Mozambique, are still living today — if we abstract the slight influence of colonialism to which they have been subjected — outside history, or that they have no history. . . .

Our refusal, based as it is on concrete knowledge of the socio-economic reality of our countries and on the analysis of the process of development of the phenomenon ‘class’, as we have seen earlier, leads us to conclude that if class struggle is the motive force of history, it is so only in a specific historical period. This means that before the class struggle — and necessarily after it, since in this world there is no before without an after — one or several factors was and will be the motive force of history. It is not difficult to see that this factor in the history of each human group is the mode of production — the level of productive forces and the pattern of ownership — characteristic of that group. Furthermore, as we have seen, classes themselves, class struggle and their subsequent definition, are the result of the development of the productive forces in conjunction with the pattern of ownership of the means of production. It therefore seems correct to conclude that the level of productive forces, the essential determining element in the content and form of class struggle, is the true and permanent motive force of history. . . . The national liberation of a people is the regaining of the historical personality of that people, its return to history through the destruction of the imperialist domination to which it was subjected.

Cabral explores the nature of the productive forces in the African colonial and neo-colonial context. The peasants must be understood differently as many are landless rural proletarians. The small proletariat, mostly involved with transportation of extracted resources, must be understood differently. And the radicalized petty bourgeois intellectuals, such as himself, must be understood as forging a proletariat in the course of the struggle. He analyzes in brilliant and unique insight the place of the radicalized sectors of the petty bourgeoisie in the neocolonial countries — explaining that they can play a leading role but must be ready to commit “class suicide,” that is to unite their interests with the working classes rather than simply scramble for their own privileges as the colonial powers are driven out.

The neo-colonial situation, which demands the elimination of the native pseudo-bourgeoisie so that national liberation can be attained, also offers the petty bourgeoisie the chance of playing a role of major and even decisive importance in the struggle for the elimination of foreign domination. But in this case, by virtue of the progress made in the social structure, the function of leading the struggle is shared (to a greater or lesser extent) with the more educated sectors of the working classes and even with some elements of the national pseudo-bourgeoisie who are inspired by patriotic sentiments. . . . This means that in order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong.

Cabral’s concept of class suicide, something adopted by Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party, posits an understanding of historical forces and struggles that is quite removed from the mechanistic, structuralist notion of class that the conservative economist Marxists had imposed on the left during the 40’s and 50’s.

Nguyen Khac Vien, a Vietnamese activist in the exile community in Paris and then a leading intellectual in Vietnam during the 60’s, also advanced theory in service of the liberation struggles. His Tradition and revolution in Vietnam positions the strategy of people’s war in the context of the Confucian tradition that was central to Vietnam’s nation building project from the 11th century on. Confucianism operated as a secular philosophy, emphasizing good works in the world and the struggle for social justice. He traces the resistance struggle to the crisis forced upon traditional culture by the French colonial incursion in the Nineteenth Century. He describes the way anti-colonial Marxist organizers stepped into the leadership role by adopting the commitment to right living in society that was a familiar theme of Vietnamese Confucian scholars.

Marxist cadres continued the tradition of the old-time revolutionary scholars by sequestering themselves in the villages, teaching and organizing the peasants over a period of many long years, until the time of land reform and the establishment of agricultural cooperatives. By doing so, they raised peasant struggle to a much higher level, opening it up to entirely new perspectives. At the same time, they struck a mortal blow at mandarinal Confucianism. . .. Marxism was not baffling to Confucians in that it concentrated man’s thoughts on political and social problems. By defining man as the total of his social relationships, Marxism hardly came as a shock to the Confucian scholar who had always considered the highest aim of man to be the fulfillment of his social obligations.

Along with Le Duan, Vien explored the indigenous application of revolutionary theory. The development of People’s War, political, moral, psychological, as well as military struggle, has been called the “greatest invention of the Twentieth Century.” With it, these poor, colonized countries brought the greatest military power in the world to its knees.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan activist, novelist, and scholar, explored the ways language inscribes colonial and neo-colonial power. His Decolonizing the Mind (1986) summed up arguments he had developed throughout the 1960’s and 70’s concerning the hierarchies of language and discourse regimes. Examining literature, education, and criticism, he exposes how imperialism maintains control through language, how the hegemonic control of the culture of subject peoples is as crucial to colonial control as is military might.

Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Algerian psychiatrist and revolutionary, used the experience of the struggle against French occupation to interrogate the way Europeans colonize not just space but knowledge. He challenged the western notion of reason, the western notion of their right to name and define things. Fanon was critiquing white, western, patriarchal epistemology well before Foucault began to write.

I’m sure there are many more we can point to — from Mexico, Uruguay, Philippines, African America, China, Mozambique, India, Palestine, and elsewhere — who were part of the huge ideological ferment that accompanied the struggles of the time. Moreover, this list can and should include more Third World women.

The Europeans have ended up with is the remarkable idea that their own work, academic discussion of language and identity, is the center of the struggle. This in itself is a form of colonialism — the left colonialism of appropriating the insights borne of the Third World struggles in order to build their own careers.

Cabral, Retamar, Dorfman, Vien, Ngugi, Fanon — I touch on these not as a complete analysis, but as a suggestion, a provocation, for us to look to the actual struggles and the people that made and make them for wisdom and leadership on the ways to move forward in the struggle for liberation. These voices remind us that the academy does not invent social knowledge; at best, it manages to pay attention and systematize knowledge that comes from social practice in the real world. Many of the leaders who have contributed to deeper understandings of the process of oppression and liberation were cut down during the struggle. We cannot allow their deaths to be the verdict of history. Our responsibility is to be involved in the struggle and to uncover, recognize and learn from our forebears.


Cabral, Amilcar. (1966). The Weapon of Theory. Havana: Tricontinental Magazine.

Dorfman, Ariel and Armand Mattelart. (1971). How to read Donald Duck: Imperialist ideology in the Disney Comic. Valparaiso, Chile: Ediciones Universitarias.

Eagleton, Terry. (2003). After theory. London: Penguin Books.

Fanon, Frantz. (1952, 2007). Black Skin, White Masks (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs). New York: Grove Press.

Morrell, Ernest. (2008). “Othered” critical traditions. In Critical literacy and urban youth: Pedagogies of access, dissent, and liberation. New York: Routledge.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. (1986). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. London: J. Currey.

Retamar, Roberto Fernandez (1989) Caliban and other essays. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Vien, Nguyen Khac. (1975). Tradition and revolution in Vietnam. Berkeley: Indochina Resource Center.

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.